South of Bangor, past Hampden and beyond the gentle rolling hills of Newburgh is a place called Windover Art Center. It’s a camp for children that specializes in the arts. You might not know this if you only saw an aerial view of the 20-acre campus with its basic wood shelters, barns and tall-grass landscape. But up close, when you saw the hand-painted rocks on either side of the entrance and the brightly colored murals on the sides of every building, you might have a clue. You’d know for sure that this is an art camp when you stepped inside the first barn — the “art barn” — and didn’t notice the sagging wood floors, but instead took in all the artwork pinned to the walls or hanging from the ceiling and the tables marked with all the evidence of creativity.
Unlike some summer camps, which often seem indistinguishable from day care and indeed might be glorified babysitting operations, Windover is a destination. Children beg to go to Windover. I know because my son Ford, 9, lobbied for his opportunity soon after he learned about Windover from a friend. He said it would be like college: “Each day, I’ll get to pick three activities that I want to do. If I don’t want to do something, I don’t have to do it.” This alone, according to Ford, was worth the tuition price.
We enrolled Ford well in advance of summer for the second-to-last weekly session that Windover would be open during the 2010 season. This meant that Ford had to wait nearly six months to go. But he already had a strategy planned: “I won’t choose an activity that I can do at home [example: swimming] if there is a different activity offered that I can’t do at home [example: pottery on a wheel].”
Owen, 7, listened to this with great interest. Apparently the idea of not being forced to do something you don’t want to do (example: stamp art) had become increasingly appealing. Soon Owen petitioned to go to camp, too. This surprised Dustin and me. Owen generally waits for his older brother to try things first, and if he walks away without harm or emotional distress, then Owen will have a go at it. Ford is like the human windshield on Owen’s life. Whatever bad experiences derail Ford’s usually happy existence are mere splattered bugs on Owen’s glass reminding him not to, say, volunteer for a singing part in the church play. The idea that Owen would willingly face a great unknown at the same time as Ford truly stunned Dustin and me. When I sent away his tuition money, I secretly wondered if I might as well have wadded up a handful of cash and tossed it out the window. I didn’t think Owen would go.
“You be nice to Owen when you’re at camp together,” I said to Ford. “Sit with him on the bus, and let him follow you around if he wants to.”
Last Monday, however, as I drove the boys to Fairmount Park, where they would catch the bus and ride it nearly 45 minutes to Newburgh, it was Ford, not Owen, who was showing signs of doubt. “I’m not sure I want to go,” Ford said.
I braced myself, thinking Owen would say, “If he’s not going, I’m not either.” I mean, would you drive without a windshield?
But instead, Owen grabbed his backpack from the van floor, threw it over his shoulder, and called out, “See you later, Mom” as he scurried to the waiting bus. Once he was seated in the row directly behind the driver, all I could see through the window was that characteristic tuft of hair sticking up from the back of his head.
Ford eventually went to camp as well, but in what was a dramatic reversal of roles, he did so, I believe, because he knew that Owen would be there, too.
On the last day of camp, parents were invited to come to an art show and see all the things the children had created. I was astounded at the activities my boys had done. They had worked video cameras, helped edit films, done underwater photography, developed negatives, made pottery and much more. All things they might never have the opportunity to do at home or even at school.
Owen bounced around the campus, introducing me to his new friends, completely unable to contain the pride he felt in himself. This, too, was unusual, because Owen normally allows Ford to take the lead … and the glory.
Windover is special for many reasons, but until you see it for yourself, you cannot fully understand. For through those woods and beyond those green rolling hills and farms is a place where a younger brother such as Owen can come out of the shadows and blossom on his own.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Her book, “I’m Just Saying …”, is available wherever books are sold. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.